‘At Black Lake’ Fails to Deliver Emotional Payoff

At Black Lake featuring Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales, April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes, background Photo credit Walls Trimble

Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales with April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes in the background.

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Four years after their children are lost in a terrible tragedy, married couple Else and Johnny return to Black Lake, the home of Cleo and Eddie and the scene of the disaster. Over the next several days, the couples grapple with their fraught connection with each other and the fact that they may not have truly known their children.

There is rich emotional material to be mined here but the story fails to come together in a cohesive arc that would allow for depth and clarity. Most of the play is spent elucidating what happened in the past but doesn’t give the characters any resolution in the present. The language has a poetic sensibility with lines often repeated for emotional emphasis. There are several haunting monologues but the highly stylized language seems to get in the actors’ way during the emotional confrontations. It’s unclear how much of this is down to the translation or to the original playwright’s style.

The staging is very sparse. The floor is covered with plastic paper and in the second half of the show, this is used to great effect. About midway through the play the actors return to the stage soaked to the skin and barefoot, referencing one of the biggest emotional revelations in the story. Thereafter, when one character crosses the stage to confront another (which happens frequently) they slip and slide on the wet plastic. It was a really creative way of conveying the messiness of the emotional dynamics.

There were other production choices that were odd such as the decision to have Else’s monologue about the children’s deaths sung. Heather Benton brings wonderful raw emotion to that speech but the choice to have it and nothing else in the show sung took me out of the moment. Every scene ends in a ten-second blackout which makes the pacing very choppy.

The cast is excellent, especially Chris J. Cancel-Pomales as Eddie, whose carefree and charismatic personality masks a desperate anxiety. Unfortunately, the script does not allow the actors to bring their characters’ arcs to their true potential. The fascinating premise and talent of the actors makes for several wonderful moments but without a tighter script they remain just a series of moments strung together to no resolution.

At Black Lake is the American premiere of a German play originally written by Dea Loher, presented by Necessary Digression. It runs through July 25th with performances at 3 PM on weekends and 7 PM on week days, at The Tank (312 West 36th Street).

www.thetanknyc.org

Let’s Talk About the Good Things

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Reviewed by Kenneth Laboy   

From the moment Not Even the Good Things starts one can appreciate the level of craft behind this production.

The lighting design of Alexander Le Vaillant Freer successfully sets the atmosphere from the start as the audience follows a single candle, and deftly carries the viewer through the many changes in mood that the play calls for. It is through Freer’s work that the production displays the elements of horror since the play itself downplays these in favor of creating a disconnect between the audience and the players. The irony effectively creates the sense of danger that wouldn’t exist if these elements were in conjunction. 

And then, the actors enter the stage. The ensemble has no weak points. As actors they are always present, always saying something even when silent. The most complicated characters, the ones with the most decisive arcs are the first we meet Grace and Bill, played by Victoria Janicki and Sea McHale respectively. The other characters serve as foils to them. Coming into the stage to challenge them in different ways. And these two actors take the material given with assured confidence. Their performances anchor the show. 

Those performances exist because writer Joseph Scott Ford has crafted an exciting blend of humor and pathos that lets these actors be electrifying on stage. He transitions through the emotional beats impeccably. And his dialogue is delightfully heavy with the unsaid, with the implied. Ford is at his best when focusing on these relationships and the specificity they carry. His instinct for what is most emotionally resonant never fails. That being said- 

As a narrative, it lacks forward momentum. While the interactions are interesting, dynamic and well-crafted, the stakes aren’t raised as the play progresses. This takes away from the moment of catharsis at the end, because it was reached without a climax. Adding to this is the fact that the last beat of Bill’s arc arrives through a conversation between Jackie and him- a relationship that had been given little weight prior to this. The play’s haunting is mostly left at the periphery of the action and so Bill’s grief, though it bookends the play, and is the foundation of the thematic through-line, is never explored enough to justify it’s being the center of the narrative.  

This problem is heightened by the challenges of the theater space. The set and the audience exist in very close proximity to each other making it difficult to follow anything that was staged too far downstage or on the floor. Because the set is small and there is no less than five actors on stage at times, director Kelsey Claire needed to use these areas to create a variety of stage pictures. For example, because the play heightens the mundane and the specter of “The girl” was placed on the floor for most of it, one forgot about her haunting for lengthy periods of time. Because that haunting seems to be a personification of Bill’s grief, and everything else happening on stage was so interesting, it was easy to dismiss his grief as well. 

The final product has its flaws, but it is also immensely enjoyable. The choices made by this team of artists are incredibly strong from start to finish. One must thank Ford, for what was clearly a labor of love, and Claire for leading an impressive team of artists to create a thoroughly entertaining, at times rambunctious, piece of art, one that keeps you thinking once the lights go down.  

Not Even the Good Things plays now through Saturday, July 27th in the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row 410 W 42st

Tickets can be bought for $35 at

https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Not-Even-the-Good-Things/Overview?AID=AFF000009900&cm_mmc=Playbill-_-affiliate-_-web-_-AFF00000990

Sleeping Beauty for Today’s Kids

Chelsea Melone Photo credit Eric Bondoc Photography

Chelsea Melone (Photo by Eric Bondoc)

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Sleeping Beauty by Amina Henry is one of the two commissioned world premieres presented as part of the Women in Theatre Festival at A.R.T/New York Theatres. This retelling of the classic children’s story is a lighthearted romp that includes important, progressive messages for kids about gender roles, consent and the bond between siblings.

The plot is a familiar one. Princess Rosamond is the beloved daughter of a king and queen who is cursed as a baby by the wicked fairy Iris that on her seventeenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Good fairy Lily softens the curse so that Rosamond will only fall asleep to be awakened by a kiss.

Believing they’ve outsmarted the curse by getting rid of all the spindles, Rosamond’s parents throw her a seventeenth birthday bash and introduce her to Prince Rocky, who they hope she’ll marry. Rocky is accompanied by his spunky sister Princess Jewel who finds the whole marrying a stranger because your parents told you to thing ridiculous. When Rosamond falls under wicked Iris’ spell, Jewel accompanies her brother on his quest because she’s better at swords and she has his back.

The show doesn’t turn the familiar story completely on its head but it does get kids to question the way these stories are usually told. Why is sword fighting only for boys and baking only for girls? Isn’t making friends just as important as getting married? And isn’t being kissed by a stranger when you’re asleep pretty creepy? The last point feels especially poignant in today’s society but it’s handled with such a light touch that it feels natural to the story and not like a Talking To Kids About Issues moment. Overall, the show injects progressive values to great success.

The setting in a black box space seemed a bit dark and gloomy (despite the presence of bright pink streamers) for such a lighthearted story and the transitions were a bit clunky with the stage manger having to pick up set pieces and move them offstage. However, the cast was energetic and charming and more importantly, the show seemed to be a hit with its target audience.

The children in the audience of the performance I attended responded very well to the show. Many of the children whispered “No” when Princess Rosamond touched the spindle and at the end when Rosamond tells Rocky “Your sister is really cool” the little boy and girl sitting in front of me embraced.

The show runs for a brief but satisfying 45 minutes and is full of quirky humor to entertain the adults as well as the kids. It’s the perfect treat for a family.

Sleeping Beauty runs through June 30th on Saturdays and Sundays with performances at 12 PM and 3PM (Only one show on June 30th at 12 PM) at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street)

https://witfestival.brownpapertickets.com

‘Rabbit Hole’ Expects More Than We Can Give

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Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Nuance Theatre Company’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole has its poignant moments—and they were delivered by committed actors who weren’t terrible—but holistically it’s a grief play that expects us to grieve about an event we never get to see, and therefore feel nothing for. So for that reason, it fails.

It’s an uphill battle when a playwright writes a play about a tragic event that happens before the curtain opens, and then expects us to feel as deeply as the actors do about it.

Rabbit Hole won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. No doubt an impressive honor. But doesn’t that just mean the small group of powers-that-be deciding who gets the award every year resonated with it? What about the average theater-goer?

The plot: Becca and Howie (Maggie Alexander and Michael Filisky) have everything a family could want, until an accident claims the life of their little boy. When the play opens, eight months have passed since the accident and the family is still mourning. They end up working through the pain to find their way back to the light.

If that sounds lifeless and depressing from beginning to end, it isn’t entirely—the play offers fits of humor, almost exclusively delivered by Izzy (Rachel Worthington), the sister of the mother of the boy who was killed. Worthington, the strongest of the cast, is a wonderful actor with a gift for unforced levity, but aside from her entrances and exits, the sheer weightiness of the melodrama proves laborious for us. A play about grief is one thing, but when it pounds in the nail and insists on hammering away until the foundation is ruined, what’s left? Well, Rabbit Hole.

It’s not really that we don’t care about this child dying, it’s that we don’t care about them caring about it. Herculean efforts are made to make us care. And sometimes we kind of do. But more often we’re watching actors emoting to themselves, not to us.

I kept thinking there needed to be something to shake it up. Maybe a scene with an altered tone, or a dazzling multimedia display. Something to rub us a completely different way. But nothing changed. So we were never moved. You’d think a dramaturg would have given this note during the writing of the script. Maybe they did, and the playwright ignored it. Then won a Pulitzer. But does that anointment give it automatic immunity?

At least the 30-seat NuBox Theater in Hell’s Kitchen was the perfect venue for it. They wanted us to feel like we were “in the living room” with them. We did. The problem was, it was for a play that expected more than we could give.

Nuance Theatre Co. in association with LungTree Productions presents Rabbit Hole. Performances run June 1 – 23, 2019.

Tickets: https://desotellestudio.ticketleap.com/

You Should Totally Give Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’s Head a Try

JONATHAN SALE

Dean Nolen, George Hampe, and Jonathan Sale as Luke Wilson (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Don’t let the showy title dissuade you…

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’s Head—a true story, apparently—is a deftly-acted, ingeniously directed, and deliciously meta frolic around the set of an iconic TV commercial.

According to the press release, the play is based on an actual shoot in which “a legendary film director put a movie star’s life in the hands of a very jittery prop guy.” Luke Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Erol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) are the real life movie star and legendary director. Actor Jonathan Sale, who plays Luke Wilson, uncannily resembles him physically. He also embodies his quirky intensity and golly-gee-wilikers charm. And Morris, played by longtime character actor David Wohl, shines as the insipid egomaniac obsessed with, well, Dropping G’s on LW’s Head.

So… Luke Wilson is shooting an AT&T commercial. The plan is for the props guy (George Hampe), who’s perched atop a ladder behind a green screen above Luke Wilson waiting for his cue, to drop 500 shiny red gumballs on Wilson’s head. The gumballs, as you may suppose, represent the red dots rival company Verizon peppers all over their U.S. map indicating breadth of cell phone service.

During rehearsal the props guy dumps a bucket of gumballs on Wilson’s head, but something happens no one anticipated—Wilson gets injured, or rather claims to be injured. Wilson pleads with Morris to reduce the gumball drop count to 10, as if his life depends on it. They ultimately agree on 15. When Wilson bounces offstage to get ready for the first take, Morris pulls aside the assistant director (Ann Harada) and instructs her to drop the full 500. She has no choice but to comply.

The play doesn’t exactly put either celeb in the most favorable light. Luke Wilson is portrayed as a lovable wimp who is kind of unsociable, slightly ornery, not too bright, his boyish grin his only salvation. And if Wohl’s portrayal of Erol Morris is accurate or even partially accurate, we would all report him to the Better Business Bureau. So if you’re either Luke Wilson or Erol Morris you might have a problem with this play. Everyone else is in for a treat.

Deserving a mention alongside the front-of-the-house team is the design team that helped Director Theresa Rebeck pull off the imaginative multimedia display that consummated Playwright Rob Ackerman’s vision: Scenic Designers Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Designer Mary Ellen Stebbins; Sound Designer Bart Fasbender; and Video Designer Yana Biryukova.

If you’re like me and you have a few screws loose in a good way, you’ll appreciate the whimsically offbeat tone Ackerman and Rebeck have created here. In the end, while it’s literally a play about the inanity of dropping gumballs on Luke Wilson’s head, Ackerman’s droll script finds unexpected depths in its disturbing account of power in the workplace.

DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON runs from June 11-July 6, 2019, at the Mezzanine Theater at the A.R.T./New York.

Tickets $40 (Reserved Tickets);  $30 (General Admission) and $25 (Student/Senior/Union Members), available at TheWorkingTheater.org, or by calling Ovationtix at 866-811-4111

A Woman’s Place is in La Résistance

Christina Liang, Ashley Bufkin, Essence Stiggers, Kate Margalite, Ella Dershowtiz

Christina Liang, Ashley Bufkin, Essence Stiggers, Kate Margalite, Ella Dershowtiz

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Three Musketeers: 1941 is presented as a part of the Women in Theatre Festival, which was founded to give a platform to women writers and performers in response to widespread gender parity in the industry.

This world premiere play is a feminist retelling of the classic novel set in Nazi-occupied Paris. Five young women join together to resist the Nazis occupation of their homeland and the French policemen collaborating with them. Nerve-wracking and inspirational, this is a timely piece about ordinary people making a difference fighting radical regimes.

The first act struggles with pacing problems. It takes awhile for the show to establish a sense of danger and high stakes. The act ends with the death of a major character so abruptly that the audience seemed a bit confused. However, the aforementioned death brought a real sense of urgency to the second act which flowed a lot better.

Much of the first act’s trouble with raising the stakes results from ineffective villains. The script relies perhaps a bit too much on the audience’s familiarity with the Nazis history to provide a sense of danger. Yet the protagonists spend the show fighting not the Nazis but their French collaborators who fail to pull their weight.

Inspector Richelieu (Zack Calhoon) is a French policeman working with the Nazis in order to advance his career. Yet most of the time he comes across as an exhausted bureaucrat struggling to meet the demands put on him by his superiors. It’s hard to focus on his willingness to persecute his own countrymen to get ahead when you’re treated to yet another scene of him being berated over the telephone. Milady (Helen Farmer) has more charisma but plays like a clichéd femme fatale. Rochefort (Javan Nelson) also seems more inept than dangerous.

Our heroes fare much better. Athos, Aramis, Porthos, D’artagnan and Planchet are all compellingly written with small flashes of backstory and interiority that lead to significant emotional payoff. The actresses have great chemistry and are individually excellent as well. Their performances make this play one to see despite the unevenness of the plot.

Above all, the decision to portray the famous musketeers as women is powerful but understated. These characters aren’t fighting for women’s issues because they’re women. They’re fighting for freedom because they are human beings living through hell. Gender bending at its most successful illustrates that women’s stories are universal.

Three Musketeers: 1941 opens on June 8th and runs until June 29th at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street)

https://witfestival.brownpapertickets.com/

I Wanted ‘God of Marz’ to be Epic

Poster - God of Marz

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Temerarious twenty-somethings are cranking out dystopian farces set in space these days by the truckload. It’s one of my favorite genres of theater—there’s something epic about achieving absurdity and profundity in the same play, sometimes even in the same scene. Eat the Devil, one of my favorite Off-Offs this year, comes to mind as a production that achieved both in a big way.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for God of Marz. It felt oddly caught between two worlds, not fearless enough to be balls-to-the-wall inane, and too slipshod to have any lasting dramatic effect. It was neither Ben & Jerry’s nor Haagen Dazs; it was Breyers. And the only time you buy Breyers is if there’s no more Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs.

The play follows two astronauts (Ray Farara and Rachel Sheen, the latter of whom wrote the play) who crash land on Mars and find themselves in the abode of God (Laura Leigh Carroll). The two space travelers agonize through kooky and acerbic interactions with the Almighty and her son Jesus, as they plan their perilous escape back to earth.

The script wasn’t a total disaster, it had its stretches of entertainment, but my main issue with the evening had less to do with the script and more to do with low-talking. I had trouble understanding several of the actor’s lines. It almost seemed they didn’t much care that we couldn’t hear them. Often words were swallowed at the end of lines. I’m all for filmic realism in theater, but when someone (me) is sitting in the very front row and has to lean in several times to wonder what they said, there’s a problem. I could only imagine what the folks sitting in back were experiencing.

The script thought it was daring and shocking, but it was actually safe, and there were several stretches that felt devoid of energy. On the contrary, the actor Ray Fanara brought a consistent energy to his role, with the boyish charm of a movie star. The rest of the cast felt like it didn’t live up to what Fanara was bringing. Carroll, who played “God”, had some comic chops, but she was probably the worst of the low-talkers—it’s like she was shooting a film. Several punchlines of hers were lost. I can’t have been the only one.

There were a few jokes that landed, but the majority of them were tepid or lazy. A couple of lazy jokes were when Jesus (Adam Chisnall) ambles into the living room saying: “Oh my mother… oh my mother,” instead of saying “oh my God… oh my God” (a joke that’s been done a million times), and at one point Jesus guilted someone by saying “I died for your sins.” Can we just not put Jesus in any comedy from here on out? Unless we can truly tread new ground?

For me, the music was the best part of the evening. Kudos to Mark Lazeski’s original soundtrack, a pulse-pounding, psychedelic goulash of sounds and tones that kept me engrossed from beginning to end—sadly it was set against a play that couldn’t quite live up to its pervasive power. At the end, Sheen, the playwright and co-star—and, who would have thought, a professional aerialist—gave us a dazzling, Olympic-caliber routine on a large ring hanging from the ceiling. That was almost worth the price of the ticket.

All said, and this is something a theater critic who has never worked in the world of theater could ever point out, Sheen should be proud of what she’s accomplished here—writing and starring in a play that will be running for 28 performances in the most important theater city in the world. How many actor/playwrights can say they’ve achieved that? Certainly not this one.

May 30 – June 15, 2019 (28 Performances)
Monday-Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
Thursday-Sunday at 6:00 p.m.

TBG Theater
312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10018

Tickets are $35 for adults; $20 for students and seniors.

Direct ticketing link: https://godofmarz.com/